What Is the Thing Called Thing?

updated 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/16/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

CHRISTOPHER HART'S HANDS HAVE ALWAYS given him a leg up in show-business, whether as a sleight-of-hand magician or playing Thing, the disembodied mitt that scampers in and out of The Addams Family, the season's current comedy hit. "Like a surgeon, I have trained these groups of muscles," says Hart in his modest Hollywood apartment, flexing his expressive digits.

Perhaps. But nothing had prepared him for the Addams Family auditions. In the '60s TV series drawn from Charles Addams's droll New Yorker cartoons, Thing was confined to a black box. But on the big screen, the appendage is not only mobile, it has to emote. "The producers said, 'Okay, have your hand look happy.' They wanted it to be nervous and sad, to see it 'wake up' and 'walk,' " recalls Hart. In the end his hand was hammy enough to win him the role over 250 mimes, magicians and puppeteers. Family director Barry Sonnenfeld praises his work with a pun: "He's one of the best things in the movie."

To earn the accolade, Hart, 30, spent nearly five agonizing months dangling from mantels, scrambling across avenues and crouching under tables. He even spent time offering up his fingers as a tee for Gomez's golf ball. "Blood would rush out of my arm, and I'd start to tingle," Hart says. "I would go into these Zen meditative states." Often, the same scene would be shot with and without him: then in the lab his body would be eliminated and his moving hand superimposed onto the footage.

Much of Hart's childhood was shaped by his love of prestidigitation. Born in Nanaimo, B.C., he grew up in Inglewood, Calif., the eldest of four children born to hairdresser turned housewife Margaret Hart and her husband, Don, a cemetery administrator. A shy child with perfectionist impulses, Chris made straight A's at St. Bernard High School and became hooked on legerdemain after watching Bill Bixby as a wand-waving crime-stopper in the 1973—74 series The Magician. "He'd practice magic in his room endlessly," says Margaret. "I could never get in there to clean." Explains Chris: "Everyone wishes they could have magic powers. As a magician, you're living the fantasy."

Hart paid for his costly hobby by working summers, first as a grave-digger and later as a salesman at the famed Hollywood Magic Shop, demonstrating tricks for such buffs as Muhammad Ali, Roseanne Arnold, Johnny Carson and Michael Jackson. Jackson, recalls Hart, "liked close-up tricks he could carry around and show friends." In 1981 Hart's skill came to the attention of magician David Copperfield, who hired him as a junior magician to help with his stage appearances and CBS TV specials. "He's very innovative and very artistic," says Copperfield. For 11 years Hart has been working on his own as well, playing everywhere from the Body Shop—an L.A. girlie club—to more upscale spots, including Las Vegas's Tropicana and Atlantic City's Harrah's Marina Hotel Casino.

For all his powers, though, he can't seem to make the girl of his dreams pop out of a hat. Having recently ended a serious romance with a onetime assistant at the Magic Castle, Hollywood's foremost private magicians' club, Hart remains philosophical about the break-up. "It turned out for the better because magic is so demanding of my time and energy," he says.

Right now, Hart has another agenda: to parlay his coup de main as Thing into a long-term opportunity, perhaps as a Bixby-like magician-detective on an ongoing series. And, he muses slyly, "How much of a body has to be in a movie to be nominated for an Oscar? Maybe there should be a new category: Best Body Part." This year he'd be the winner—hands down.


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